Egypt continues its crackdown on freedom of speech and expression. The latest victim is Patrick George Zaki, a researcher, and activist for gender issues for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). According to BBC News, Zaki “was arrested in February 2020 at Cairo airport upon his return from Italy, where he had been studying. . .for a master’s degree in Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Bologna.”
Zaki was detained at the Cairo International Airport by the National Security Agency in 2018, according to his lawyer, who also alleges that “he was subjected to torture, including with electric shocks, while being questioned about his activism and the EIPR, which is one of Egypt’s leading human rights organisations.”
Zaki drew attention by publishing the article, “Displacement, Killing and Restriction: A Week’s Diaries of Egypt’s Copts,” which presents his reaction, as a Christian Egyptian citizen, to current events regarding the Coptic community in the country, which have been the unrelenting target of the Egyptian government since Abdul Fattah al-Sisi effectively took over in 2014.
Unfortunately, this was just the beginning of Zaki’s mistreatment by President al-Sisi’s government. As Al Jazeera reports, after being held “in pre-trial detention for 19 months, Zaki was [recently] charged . . . with ‘spreading false news inside and outside of the country’, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in jail.”
To demonstrate the depth of the government’s oppression and its callous disregard for due process, Zaki was arrested shortly after making pleas about human rights violations to visiting diplomats. Africa Must Change, an organization that advocates for human rights and speaks out about oppression on the continent, writes, “Security forces began the fresh crackdown on EIPR a week after the organisation disclosed a routine meeting with foreign diplomats in Cairo to discuss human rights in Egypt, signaling yet another new low for Egyptian rights groups.”
The grounds for his arrest and indictment are dubious at best. The Egyptian government has become notably hostile towards any voices that dare to criticize its policies or state-sponsored enforcement mechanisms.
One of the best tools they have is to spread false propaganda. As the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) points out, “The fabricated case against Zaki occurs in the context of an escalating government crackdown against civil society, which has ensnared an ever-growing number of researchers, academics, human rights defenders, and other peaceful citizens into Egypt’s penal system.”
Zaki’s arrest and imprisonment have drawn the ire and condemnation of multiple supporters of human rights. Mai El-Sadany, an expert on Egyptian law at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington DC argues, “For the Egyptian authorities to bring baseless terrorism charges against senior staff of one of the country’s most respected NGOs less than two weeks after they met with foreign diplomats is unprecedented, and creates an alarming and unacceptable implication that informing policymakers is criminal activity.”
Using the military to expel President Mohammed Morsi from power following mass protests against his rule, the al-Sisi government took over Egypt in 2014 and was elected in 2018, in an election that was “widely considered to be lacking in genuine competition,” thus extending his reign of terror over Egyptians. Seen as the embodiment of an anti-terrorism movement, al-Sisi used the military to crush groups he saw as extremist in nature.
Moreover, the propaganda is typically paired with penal codes that criminalize any behavior the Egyptian government deems as threatening to its grip on the fate of its increasingly beleaguered citizenry. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), “Egypt’s civil society is shrinking under a relentless government crackdown. A 2017 law regulating nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) has ushered in unprecedented levels of repression and will criminalize the work of many NGOs, making it impossible for them to function independently.”
In fact, the al-Sisi government has used the military itself to quash opposition and dissent. As reported by the BBC, “Human Rights Watch says it reviewed interior ministry statements announcing the deaths of 755 people – and the arrest of only one suspect – in 143 alleged shoot-outs between January 2015 and December 2020.”
However, the government has been able to obscure its actions and side-step criticisms of human rights violations through a carefully calculated campaign against what they perceive as radial elements that threaten to undo the at best halting progress made since they took over in 2014. In doing so, “the regime has effectively positioned itself as a counterweight to Islamist extremism in the Middle East and North Africa,” states The International Peace Institute.
The ugly reality is that the a-Sisi government has used the fight against terroristic forces as a pretext to oppress anyone who contradicts their propaganda or criticizes its policy or police-state tactics to control the populace. CIHRS explains, “The Egyptian government’s retaliatory campaign against researchers with pro-human rights perspectives comes in the context of a broader campaign to eliminate civil society.”
The Egyptian government uses multiple extralegal weapons to silence anyone they see as oppositional. HRW states, “The authorities have frozen the assets of seven leading human rights organizations and shut down others” and “have also dissolved over 2,000 charity organizations, confiscating their assets, on charges that they have links to the banned Muslim Brotherhood.”
Zaki’s circumstances parallel the fate of Ismail Alexandrani, currently serving a ten-year prison sentence handed down by a military tribunal in May 2018, Ibrahim Ezz El-Din, an urban researcher at the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, researcher Mohamed Abdel-Ghany, who has been held in pretrial detention for over one month, and Coptic researcher Ramy Kamel, detained since November 2019, as reported by CIHRS.
CIHRS also alleges that all of these men were arrested and imprisoned unjustly, suffering extreme torture tactics from the Egyptian government. All of these illegal maneuvers are designed to control and manipulate the voices of the opposition and echo the anti-human policies used by the Castro regime to consolidate and maintain power in Cuba, which employed the military, police, and courts to strangle dissent.
Even in the days leading up to the trial, the government was conspiring against Zaki in a secretive, suspicious manner, compiling evidence that was concocted in a star-chamber fashion. As Riccardo Noury, spokesperson for Amnesty International Italy points out, “it is clear that the Egyptian prosecutor’s office, as the time of preventive detention drew closer to 24 months, decided to pull out something from the enormous pile of supposed secret evidence, which was never made available to the defense, to justify the start of a trial.”
In response, Zaki’s lawyer has asked for and received a trial postponement until December 7, 2021. Meanwhile, Zaki remains in detention at Tora prison in Cairo. So, even as Egypt moves in the shadowland of secrecy and deception, the eyes of the world are upon them. That includes the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT). OMCT has created the following set of requested actions of the Egyptian Government:
- Guarantee, in all circumstances, the physical integrity and psychological well-being of Patrick George Zaki as well as of all human rights defenders in Egypt;
- Immediately and unconditionally release Patrick George Zaki and all the human rights defenders arbitrarily detained in Egypt, as their detention is arbitrary since it only seems to aim at punishing them for their human rights activities;
- Put an end to all acts of harassment, including at the judicial level, against Patrick George Zaki, as well as against all human rights defenders in Egypt, and ensure that they are able to carry out their activities without hindrance;
- Carry out an independent, thorough, impartial, and transparent investigation into the above-mentioned acts of torture and ill-treatment against Patrick George Zaki in order to identify all those responsible, bring them before an independent tribunal, and sanction them as provided by the law.
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